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From AJR,   December/January 2009

Lessons from the Trail   

Online Exclusive » What metro newspapers can learn from Barack Obama’s victory

By Phyllis Kaniss
Phyllis Kaniss (apk@sas.upenn.edu), author of 'Making Local News? and 'The Media and the Mayor's Race,? teaches at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania.     

The day after Barack Obama's election, it was as if Americans had suddenly rediscovered the worth of newspapers, as people everywhere clamored to get their hands on a commemorative front page heralding the election of the nation's first African American President.

After months of depressing news of steep declines in circulation and advertising revenues--capped off by word that the Christian Science Monitor was abandoning its print product — the record newsstand sales had to hearten newspaper management. But if those running the show were wise, they might see deeper implications of Obama's victory for their long-term survival. Among the lessons they might consider:

• The suburbs are in play and realigning with cities. Barack Obama won in large part because many suburbanites turned away from the Republican Party and joined city dwellers to vote Democratic. For three decades, metropolitan newspapers have struggled in their efforts to capture affluent suburban residents living in small, fragmented political jurisdictions with waning interest in the central city. They have mostly been unsuccessful, whether experimenting with zoned editions that tried to compete with suburban papers or when turning their backs entirely on the dismal news of their struggling cities. But the campaign showed that there might be some real common threads uniting city and suburb.

While Sarah Palin extolled the virtues of "small town America," Obama succeeded by speaking to the 83 percent of Americans now living in metropolitan areas, addressing issues that increasingly cut across urban-suburban borders. As scholars at a recent University of Pennsylvania conference on the New American City pointed out, downtown resurgence has been matched by a growing interdependence of city and suburban economies. Going forward, there is likely to be acute interest in the localized impacts of the new president's policy agenda, from new infrastructure investment to aid for struggling state and local governments. Metro newspapers are uniquely situated to cover such regional issues.

• New media can build personal relationships that boost engagement. Campaign Web sites have been around since the early 1990s, but the Obama campaign did not simply wait for people to come to them. Instead, they built sophisticated databases and used e-mail, text messages and social networking tools to reach out to potential donors, volunteers and voters. At relatively low cost, they were able to build the kind of personal, trusted relationships that newspapers will need to survive in the 21st century. The campaign's new-media outreach was marked by timeliness (witness an e-mail from the president-elect sent minutes after he delivered his acceptance speech) and the extensive use of video (from campaign appearances, ads and debate clips.) Metro newspapers need to fully embrace both techniques: working with their reporters to understand the importance of teaming constantly updated, up-to-the-minute news with video clips posted on their Web sites. Although they have yet to fully realize it, metro newspapers for the first time have the capability to challenge their closest competitors, by becoming, in effect, local TV newscasts with brains.

• Entertainment can be a lure, but not a substitute, for serious ideas. Few viral videos in the 2008 campaign got as much attention as the will.i.am mashup of "Yes, we can," with dozens of performers singing in support of Barack Obama. While the music was a draw, what made the video a success was the use of words from Obama's actual speeches. As newspaper Web sites celebrate features stories for their ability to garner unique visits and increase "site stickiness," they cannot abandon their core mission of communicating local news that matters. The election and the economic crisis have caused Americans to attend to policy issues as never before. Newspapers now need to keep them in the tent.

• Revenue can be raised from the little guys as well as the big guys. The Obama campaign surprised many jaded political observers by raising an eye-popping amount of money online from small donors. Metro newspapers, looking to boost online advertising revenue to replace classifieds fleeing for craigslist and the disappearing department store display ads, have tended to overlook smaller local advertisers. Many continue to try to bundle ads for their print product with online targets, pricing out the little guy. There is no reason why local online advertising cannot be expanded by new approaches that target smaller sources in new ways, to capture more of a growing local online advertising buy.

• Volunteers can further your mission. A final lesson of Election 2008 is that the efforts of a highly-skilled paid staff can be enhanced with the help of eager volunteers. Cash-strapped metropolitan newspapers need to be more creative in forging strategic partnerships to generate local news content, enabling them to pursue the kind of watchdog journalism that requires professionals. This strategy should include everything from linking to suburban bloggers and other hyperlocal citizen-generated content to encouraging local foundations and universities to produce compelling research on the city and the region that might serve as source material for time-pressed reporters.

In the midst of an industry-wide restructuring made ever more difficult by a deepening recession, newspapers might just benefit from a little more belief that yes, they still can.